Review: Scream VI

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Stars: Melissa Barrera, Hayden Panettiere, Jasmin Savoy Brown

Having slain camp counsellors in and around Crystal Lake until the act lost all meaning, unkillable ski-mask-sporting zombie Jason Voorhees eventually took a river ride to New York and slasher infamy with Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Unfortunately, said infamy found him for all the wrong reasons. The 1989 Rob Hedden directed entry in the series confirmed what most had already resigned themselves to; Jason just couldn’t cut it anymore. With Vancouver providing a poor substitute for the Big Apple, the end sequence of the film (long delayed at that) ended up more a feeble punchline than a rise to the challenge of it’s title. All of which is to say that switching up to NYC to inject new life into a tired franchise has been tried before and is far from a guarantee.

A year ago the Scream series tried to argue for its continued relevance at our cinemas, and while audiences turned up to bankroll this speedy fifth sequel, the annoyingly-titled Scream failed to settle the argument. I’ve revisited Matt Betinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s offering a couple of times in the interim and it still underwhelms. It is too long and the duty of introducing a replacement cast hobbles the pacing. Well, Scream VI is longer. The longest Scream yet, in fact. I went into the theatre with some trepidation.

Trepidation that I mostly left at the door. New York new rules? The tagline actually carries some weight this time, though not in the ways one might expect.

It’s a year since the events of the last movie. Surviving half-sisters Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) have relocated from Woodsboro, CA to NYC. Tara’s in college; Sam is doting on her protectively, much to the younger woman’s chagrin. Rounding out the new ‘core four’ are twins Mindy (Jasmine Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding), who have also enrolled alongside Tara at Blackmore University.

In many ways Scream VI adheres to tradition, albeit with little remixes here and there. There’s a tensely public reworking of the opening phone call (here with the directors’ former Ready or Not lead Samara Weaving); the sequence where all the characters are told the ‘rules’ of the movie they’re in; attacks at home; chases at night; an elaborate and ultimately silly reveal monologue for the killer(s)… all present and correct. But (to paraphrase Dewey, RIP) something about this one does feel different. Having gone through the pain of setting up it’s new generation of leads, new writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick successfully bed them in here as people to root for and, in the process, start letting go of one of the series’ increasingly tired aspects; the meta comedy schtick.

Scream VI is the most straight-faced of the bunch. It takes it’s own blood-letting seriously (and there’s plenty of it); it’s characters – perhaps tired of this seemingly endless cycle of psychos – are done with Ghostface, done with kidding around. With much of the flippancy of prior entries vanquished, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have the opportunity to play Ghostface as a more menacing threat, and the effort they put in yields results. This, combined with the more seasoned character work, means that attacks feel serious, consequential. Scream VI steps away from it’s comedy whodunit roots and toward it’s legacy as a horror franchise. Add in the gothic grandeur of it’s third act setting and this one feels more spiritually connected to the heydays of Italian giallo; the proto-slashers that helped propel the genre into being.

Scream 6' Images Show Jenna Ortega & Melissa Barrera's New York Nightmare

Neve Campbell may have bowed out this time around, but Sidney’s material involvement in these stories has been steadily diminishing over the course of the sequels, and her role last time felt incidental at best. She’s not missed. She may once have been the heart of these movies, but that baton has been successfully passed on to the new crew. As a result, it is Courtney Cox’s reappearance as Gale that feels slightly incongruous. She’s gotta just let someone else cover the story at some point. A far more welcome return comes from Hayden Panettiere as Kirby Reid; fan-favourite and survivor of the fourth (and, whisper it, best) film. The exact reason for her return is best left unspoiled, but it’s great having her back in the mix.

The responsible parties are eminently guessable this time around and while some of the routines are starting to feel over-familiar, the change of setting and the amped up sense of danger propel Scream VI and engenders audience engagement, meaning that the relatively long running time doesn’t cause complaint. Of course there are a smattering of new peripheral characters onto whom red herrings are pinned, etc, but VI is far more concerned with upping our connection to it’s new kids on the block, and on that score it is quite the success. Sam’s connection to OG psycho Billy Loomis is leaned into further, painting her as a more complex torch-bearer than Sidney. Barrera takes to it well. Ortega rides on her already-trademark outsider spunk. Savoy Brown and Gooding carry goodwill from other shows/movies (The Leftovers and Booksmart respectively) but here have more room to fill-out their new characters in their own right. As the body count rapidly threatens to escalate, you want them to survive. I’m not sure I even felt as invested for the prior set of leads…

If this one seems less overtly ‘about’ something, well, you just have to look a little harder. Sam’s public smearing following the Woodsboro massacre continues an enquiry into how the internet’s influence shapes our personalities and sense of self-worth. Her own protectiveness of Tara is turned into a literal conundrum in act three; to let her go or not. And there’s a moment here where Scream cleaves close to – of all things – Fast & Furious with a chest-swelling overture about making your own family. These things are there for the taking so long as you feel invited to the party. For the first time though – and in it’s favour, ultimately – this one feels less like a party, more like a massacre. At times the urban setting makes it feel close to a Saw sequel (take that how you will).

Perhaps the most meta joke in Scream VI is the one hiding in plain sight that never gets commented on, even by slasher-enthusiast Mindy. Like Jason Takes ManhattanScream VI wasn’t filmed in New York at all. Montreal does the doubling work this time around. Unlike Friday Part VIII, this is one slasher sequel that (mostly) sticks the landing. It may have mutated to survive, but Scream remains healthy, if a little cut up around the abdomen.

7 of 10

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